Improving Webinars

I design and deliver or support a fair number of webinars. Last night, as I de-briefed a webinar that had just wrapped with a colleague of mine, we felt the content was good. The delivery was good. The interaction was good. But we still ran into a very severe flaw. Continue reading

5 Ways to Start a Webinar for Maximum Interactivity

A while back I asked: “Why are people checking their email when they should be paying attention to my webinar?!” The answer to that question revolved around engagement and interactivity that can be designed into a webinar. That blog post had several ideas for interactivity depending on your tolerance for risk (the cooler and more engaging you may want to make your webinar, the greater the reward… and the greater the opportunity that the technology could fail).

One thing to remember about interactivity in webinars, however, is that your audience may not be ready for it. Many people still see webinars as little more than glorified conference calls (and by “glorified” I mean conference calls that simply have accompanying on-screen PowerPoint presentations… and maybe a poll or two).

Why not take the first five minutes of your next webinar – you know, the time that you’re needing to kill as you’re waiting for last-minute joiners to log on to Adobe Connect or download all the stuff that needs to be downloaded in order to hop on to Blackboard Collaborate – and get your attendees warmed up with some of the web conferencing features you’ll be using to engage them.

Here are five ideas of how to do this as people are logging on:

Organizing a Presentation Outline – Lesson Plan

Being intentional and methodical when it comes to organizing your thoughts around a presentation – whether a 5-minute presentation during a team meeting, a formal training session or even a sales pitch – is such an under-utilized art form.

When I write the words “intentional and methodical,” I don’t mean just having an outline and then spending time on developing your slides to illustrate your point. I use the words “intentional and methodical” to mean an obsessive use of a formula that has been proven effective and successful in producing observable results.

Lesson Plan Templates

And there are a number of people searching for such a formula to use obsessively. “Lesson Plan Template” is one of the most common search terms that lead people to the Train Like A Champion blog. In general, those three keywords (and variations thereof) will take readers to one of the following previous posts that feature a blank lesson plan template:

organizing a presentation outline - blank lesson plan  Modified Lesson Plan - 9

If you’re in the market for a new way to organize a presentation outline and you want to try a formula that has been proven successful (a previous post entitled The Evolution of an SME offers more details on this claim), by all means, please visit one of those previous posts and download the free lesson plan template.

Examples of Organizing a Presentation Outline

Several readers have asked for a sample template that has been filled out in order to get a feel for organizing a lesson plan outline and how much information should be included (ie: should it be a verbatim script, should it simply have bullet points of key ideas to be presented, or should it have something in between these two extremes?). If you’d like to see an example of this lesson plan template in action, please click on this link to view a webinar lesson plan I created using this template.

If you do end up using this format to help organize a presentation outline, I’d love to hear how it works (so please drop a line in the comments section below). If you use a different method to organize your thoughts, I’d love to hear what method works for you (again, please drop a line in the comments section below).


“What would have made that webinar better?”

Recently, a doctor asked me for some feedback on a webinar I had observed.  I started to rattle off some suggestions.  Then I had to stop myself.  It’s true that more interaction would clearly have made the webinar more engaging – use of polling features or the chat function or simply posing questions to the audience and having them respond verbally or maybe even throwing in a few breakout room discussions.  (Click here for a related post on strategies to engage learners during a webinar.)

But none of these suggestions felt right.

Then I realized I was doing a poor job of answering his question.  Honestly, I couldn’t answer his question without one key piece of information: what were the original learning objectives for the webinar?  It was never clear to me what the learners were supposed to be able to do differently as a result of the webinar.

It dawned on me that the answer to this doctor’s question was: better-crafted learning objectives would have made the webinar better.

What is a well-crafted learner objective?  A well-crafted learner objective finishes this sentence: by the end of this webinar, my learners will be able to

If his learners should be able to explain the key differences between the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) IV and the DSM V, then there should have been some type of activity in which participants were challenged to explain these differences.

Well-crafted learning objectives are essential to a well-crafted and engaging learning experience – whether it’s a webinar, instructor-led classroom training or even an elearning module.  Without identifying what learners should be able to do differently, it’s tough (impossible?) to design and deliver a tight, targeted, engaging learning experience.

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When Webinars are Worse than Communism

The old joke about communism was that as long as the bosses pretended to pay people, the people would pretend to work.  In this sense, too many webinars have become worse than communism because nobody even bothers to pretend!  The attendees spend time “multitasking” (checking their email), not pretending to pay attention.  The presenters lecture and click through slides, not pretending to be concerned about their learners’ experience.

Here are 5 tips to engage webinar learners:

  1. Keep the chat box open

Sometimes webinar facilitators don’t bother to use the chat box to ask participants for input.  Sometimes they simply ignore the chat box.  Sometimes they have set the permissions so that participants cannot type into the chat box or see what others have to say.  While the facilitator may be the expert, the facilitator doesn’t hold a monopoly on all knowledge.  Allowing participants to engage in “side conversations” (as long as they are on topic) can be a way to add value and engagement.

  1. Make use of the white board

The white board is the default screen.  If you don’t load up a single slide, you are left to stare at a white board.  You can also turn your slides into a virtual white board for people to provide their own thoughts.  Posting a question or asking people to type their thoughts or experiences right on the main screen is a way to put the learners’ contributions front and center.

  1. Quizzes and polls

Who doesn’t like to see how they’re answers stack up against a bunch of other people?  I’ve seen many facilitators begin their webinars with a quick poll on job titles or years of experience in order to get a feel for the audience.  But why not continue to ask for responses throughout the webinar?  Why not throw out a trivia question related to the webinar in order to transition and introduce a new topic?

  1. Show of hands

Perhaps the easiest way to get people involved is to ask to see a show of hands.  The “raise hand” button – an icon found under the participant list on every web conference service – is simple to find and simple to use.  Facilitators can break up their lecture by simply finishing this sentence: “How many of you have ever…?” It’s quicker than setting up a poll.  And it is a way to check whether the audience is still paying attention.

  1. Breakout rooms

This is the highest risk feature of web conferencing and I’ve never actually participated in a webinar in which a facilitator has broken us up into breakout rooms.  It requires the facilitator to be comfortable with the web conferencing technology, it requires practice to be sure the technology works and that the facilitator knows how to start and stop breakout rooms, it requires that clear instructions be given to participants and it requires trust that participants will engage in conversation without a facilitator monitoring their every move.  I’ve used this feature in webinars and it leads to enormously high levels of interaction and information sharing among participants.

While this blog focuses mainly on training and development, the same degree of disengagement found in webinars can also be found in web-based staff and team meetings.  Many of the above tips can also be used if you’re using web conferencing software to conduct meetings for a geographically dispersed workforce.

Related Post:

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Don’t Let Your Own Voice Get in the Way of Your Success

Bill Belichick, and I have something in common.  If you’re a trainer or presenter, perhaps you do, too. 

Every elite level coach and athlete will watch hours of game film each week, dissecting each play, finding out how to improve their performance and where to make adjustments the next time around.

As trainers, do we take advantage of available technologies to review our performance with an eye toward continual improvement and effectiveness in our delivery? Or do we cringe at the thought of watching ourselves in action?  If you’re like I am, hearing your own voice is the one thing worse than hearing nails on a chalkboard.

Seeing is Believing

About six years ago, I facilitated a train-the-trainer session for the first time in a new job.  The end-of-session feedback was incredibly positive; to sum it up, the participants felt that my co-facilitator and I rocked, we had exceeded expectations. 

Except for one participant.  She literally thought I rocked, as in I swayed slightly from side to side as I was talking in front of the room.  She said I made her sea sick.  I dismissed it because there’s always one attendee who just has to say something critical.

A year and a half later, as an assignment for a masters program, I had to videotape myself delivering a 5-minute presentation.  And I rocked!  Literally. I was gently swaying from side to side.  Reviewing the video, I grew sea sick.

Since then I have made a conscious effort to beware of my body language and posture when in front of a group.  I never would have made this adjustment (and I would still be gently swaying) had I never seen that video.

Hearing is also Believing

Recordings – whether video or audio – can also be an extremely helpful tool when working with others (such as clients, subject matter experts or co-workers).

Recently, a co-worker and I spent an hour in a conference room reviewing a recorded webinar he had delivered. He’s a subject matter expert and knows his stuff forwards and back.  In all honestly, his presentation was fine.

Listening to his voice grated on his ears. But it was his opportunity to listen to his own voice that was the most important part of this exercise.

Feedback after the live event could have easily turned into a debate between my observations and my co-worker’s perceptions of his delivery.  But after we reviewed a recording of the webinar together, he could hear how many times he said “uh” or “um.” He could listen to the way he struggled to respond to some of the questions.  And there was no disputing these observations.

We identified opportunities for more learner participation:

  • throwing questions back to the participants to answer
  • using the polling feature
  • allowing everyone to see the questions in the chat box (watching the recorded webinar, we realized that participants did not have access to see others’ comments in the chat box)
  • stopping at critical points in a case to ask what others would have done with such a limited amount of information

As we thought about future webinars, we even saw the potential for using the breakout room feature.

After Further Review

Whether you’re working on a 60-minute webinar or a week-long training program, the fact is that your participants are investing time out of their lives to spend with you – time that they’ll never get back.  In exchange for this investment, you owe your participants a top notch learning experience.  Recording technologies offer trainers and presenters an opportunity to catch bad habits and improve every element of your delivery. 


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“Why are people checking their email when they should be paying attention to my webinar?!”

Even though web conference technologies have offered learning professionals unprecedented opportunity to spread their content around the world, more often than not it seems attendees spend more time on their email than listening to the presenter.  Such “multi-tasking” isn’t a necessary evil, but more likely the function of presenters who feel handcuffed by the online, distance-based format.  How do you truly engage people when you’re limited to a PowerPoint presentation and can’t even see the people you’re training?

A few small changes in the planning and preparation by presenters can transform the attendee experience from that of a passive receiver of information to an active co-creator of the learning experience.  The more opportunities you offer for participants to engage with you, the less opportunity the participants will have to “multi-task”.

Before you can engage with participants and offer your undivided attention, you’ll need to be sure to get some administrative details squared away. 

  • Have a co-pilot: Finding a partner to handle technical issues and questions that webinar attendees have on the day of the presentation will free your energy and attention to be 100% focused on the delivery of the webinar.
  • Limit to 60(ish) minutes: Regardless of how engaging you make the webinar, the fact is that attendees are joining you from the comfort of their own desks.  Anything over 60 minutes will all but guarantee that participants will no longer be able to hold off their temptation to check their email or begin working on a report that’s due tomorrow.
  • Practice, practice, practice: Be sure you’re familiar with both the technology and the way in which you want to deliver the content.  Have a few co-workers serve as a rehearsal audience and have them try to think of questions that real participants may ask.

Now that the administrative details have been taken care of, following are several strategies to engage webinar audiences depending on your level of comfort and tolerance for risk:

  • Risk Tolerance: Just about everything stays in your control

All web conferencing platforms allow you to set up polls and survey your participants.  This can be used as an icebreaker (“how many people are from the east coast, west coast, how many individual contributors are on the webinar, how many managers”, etc) at the beginning and/or can be interspersed throughout the lesson to check in with participants (“before I go any further, how many of you would take x action in this case, how many of you would take y action in this case”, etc).  Be sure to have polling questions prepared prior to the webinar, let participants know how much time they will have to respond and verbally announce the results (sometimes technology gets screwy and participants can’t see the percentage breakdowns of poll responses). A quick way to take a poll of your participants without setting up a survey is to pose a question and ask participants to use the raise hand function.

  • Risk Tolerance: Able to screen comments before acknowledging them

All web conferencing platforms also have a chat box that can be used in several ways.  First, invite participants to type their questions as they arise into the chat box.  You may wish to answer these questions as they arise – though this can disrupt your rhythm – or you may wish to plan for several points to pause and answer clusters of questions.  You can also pose questions to your participants and ask them to type their answers into the chat box.  This allows all of your attendees to participate at the same time.

  • Risk Tolerance: Something silly might be said, but you can always mute them

Many presenters prefer to place all participants on mute as soon as they join a webinar.  This automatically eliminates background noises (especially for participants who call-in and use the speaker phone feature).  Posing a question to participants and inviting them to offer verbal responses (whether calling in or using VOIP) enables more of a give-and-take exchange and allows participants to expand upon their ideas.  Two downsides to this approach include the fact that only a limited number of participants can offer verbal comments (not everyone can talk at once) and participants can occasionally be somewhat verbose or off-topic.

  • Risk Tolerance: If the technology fails, the show can still go on

Facilitators in webinar settings can imitate classroom-based flipcharting by inviting participants to use the white board feature.  Facilitators can place a title or subject on the white board and invite participants to brainstorm and freely type ideas onto the screen.  These white board screens can be saved and typed up later or simply sent out to participants as a pdf file.

  • Risk Tolerance: High risk, high reward

The ultimate way to engage everyone in a classroom setting is to break them up into small groups.  Almost every web conferencing platform I have used now offers a breakout room feature whereby you can assign participants to small groups.  This can be a bit complex so you must practice this feature with some co-workers before you decide to use breakout rooms in a live webinar.  On the day of the webinar, you’ll also want to provide clear directions for how breakout rooms work (perhaps by sending a handout via email prior to the webinar).  This is a feature that most webinar participants are not accustomed to and will need some help with initially.  Just as a facilitator will float from small group to small group to clear up any questions in a classroom setting, a webinar facilitator will need to “drop in” on each breakout room (and/or have several co-facilitators who can also drop in on breakout rooms) in order to clear up questions and ensure people are having small group discussions.  Participants in small groups and breakout rooms are generally way too engaged to be bothered with their email.

Webinars remain a tricky format to draw out participation and engage attendees.  Good design (and some pre-webinar practice) can quickly connect learners with the content, the facilitator and each other in an extremely engaging learning experience.

Have other ideas on engaging webinar participants?  The comment section is all yours!